“I have witnessed the sublime in the mundane…”
(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher.)
But this story, in truth, is not about me. I am only a small part of it. I could try to forget it, perhaps. I could try to put it behind me. But sometimes I dream that I’ll still return to the pageantry of the sideshow, hide myself beneath costumes and powder and paint, grow willingly deaf among the opiating roar of the audience and the bellow of the old brass band. It will be like the old days – when Mother was ferocious and alive, before the Church of Marvels burned to the sand. But how can I return now, having seen what I have seen? For I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.
Why, he wondered, did he have to peddle his difference for their amusement, and yet at the same time temper it, suppress it, make it suitably benign?
How would it feel to know there were people who’d chosen to live as they felt, not as they appeared, and never looked back? Could she bear their happiness, as shunned as they were? Was she brave enough?
She had seen it done. Wherever they glittered in the afterlife – flying among the high rafters of heaven, swimming with her mother in an undersea cave – she hoped the tigers had known it, and roared.
For the first time in her seventeen years, Odile Church is alone. Her mother’s sideshow carnival, the Church of Marvels, burned to ash in the spring, the casualty of a freak fire. With it went her mother, many of her friends, and the only life she knew. Her twin sister, Isabelle Church, was spared – only to run off to Manhattan not long after. That was three months ago; three months without a word.
And then Odile receives a cryptic, ominous letter from Belle: “If for some reason this is the last letter I should write to you, please know that I love you.” Armed with little more than an old map of her mother’s and Belle’s letter, Odile hops the next ferry to Manhattan in search of her sister.
Meanwhile, night soiler and amateur boxer Sylvan Threadgill is cleaning out a Manhattan privy when he happens upon a baby girl, discarded like so much garbage. An orphan himself, Sylvan ignores the foreman’s orders to leave her be and instead sneaks her off to his basement apartment on Ludlow Street. Finding the thought of dumping her off at an orphanage unbearable, Sylvan resolves to track down the babe’s wayward mother.
And on Blackwell’s Island, the mortician’s bride Alphie Leonetti awakens in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum with no idea of how she got there – just a sneaking suspicion that her scheming, distrustful mother-in-law, the Signora, is behind her imprisonment. Little by little, Alphie attempts to piece together the fragmented memories leading up to Blackwell’s – while also plotting her escape with a mysterious fellow inmate.
Told from the alternating perspectives of Odile, Sylvan, Alphie, and (occasionally) Belle, Church of Marvels is a wonderfully weird, complex, suspenseful, and unexpected story that cuts across multiple genres. Set on the islands of New York City – Manhattan, Coney, and Blackwell – in 1895, Church of Marvels could easily be classified as historical fiction; but its exploration of the extraordinary body also has a sociological feel. Likewise, the glimpse it offers into turn-of-the-century “lunatic asylums” has a distinctly feminist bent: the prisoners – many of whom are not actually mentally ill, but are otherwise troublesome or inconvenient women – are routinely drugged to force compliance, abused for fun or punishment, kept shackled, branded/tattooed, and denied contact with the outside world.
Ditto: Mrs. Bloodworth’s apothecary, in which wayward girls go to escape the shame of unwed motherhood (the feminist insight, if not the abuse).
Above all this, though, Church of Marvels is a delicious, edge-of-your-seat mystery. The story begins with three seemingly unrelated narrators; slowly but surely, their paths converge in unforeseen yet serendipitous ways. And just when you think that Parry has tied up all the loose ends, she reveals another layer (or two or three) of interconnectedness. It’s rather amazing to watch, actually.
The sheer breadth of diversity to be found here is stunning as well. Let’s start with the obvious: the Church of Marvels “freaks,” who have minor roles: Georgette, with her extra set of legs; Aldovar, the half man/half woman act, who is “of two spirits” (a botched circumcision left him with “abnormal sex organs”); and Leland the “dwarf.”
As Odile searches NYC for her sister, we meet several disabled children, such as Pigeon, the girl at Mrs. Bloodworth’s who is missing an arm; and the unnamed boy working in the opium den whose mother cut off his nose. Odile herself suffers from spinal problems; for most of her life, she had to wear a brace, leading to childhood taunts of “Croc-Odile” and “gimp.” (One of my favorite passages is when Belle cuts off the pinky toe of her sister’s tormentor with her blunt stage dagger.)
And Sylvan Threadgill is biracial, with “the skin of a Gypsy, the hair of a Negro, the build of a German, the nose of a Jew.” Mrs. Izzo, in whose care he leaves the baby, has skin “the color of burnished gold.”
There’s more, but spoilers. Oh, the spoilers!
Beyond the sideshow aspect, the book’s diversity isn’t immediately obvious – but it’s there. That’s one of my favorites: when a book hits you with such a marvelously diverse case of characters without giving you much of a hint going in. (Think: The Country of Ice Cream Star.) Of course, it’d be nice to know beforehand – that way interested readers can seek diverse books out – but surprises are nice too. And Church of Marvels is packed with them.
And let’s not forget Parry’s world-building, which is awesome. There are so many wonderful period details; Mrs. Izzo’s weaving business (she makes trinkets out of the hair of the dead) and the washed up whale carcass (of which now only the rib bones remain) are two that will stick with me. Turn-of-the-century New York City is the fifth MC in Church of Marvels.
She also paints characters that are impossibly complex and nuanced; even the likely villain of the story, the Signora, is difficult to hate without restraint, given her past abuse and possible mental disorder(s).
On more than one occasion, I found myself cursing a character’s seemingly ridiculous actions – only to have them illuminated past clarity by a big reveal fifty or a hundred pages later. Everything falls into place, no matter how nonsensical. Trust me.
There’s so much more I long to say, but I don’t want to spoil anything, so. Just go read it. You won’t be sorry.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! Since twin sisters Odile and Belle Church work in a sideshow, there are several “freaks” with minor roles: Georgette, who has an extra set of legs; Aldovar, the half man/half woman act, who is “of two spirits” (we later learn that a botched circumcision left him with “abnormal sex organs,” as it’s described in his adoption records); and Leland the “dwarf.” Odile and Belle are also born freaks, though they (and we) don’t find out until later in the story; they were conjoined at the head and separated in infancy by the nurse who took them in. As a result, Odile suffers from spinal problems and was forced to wear a brace throughout childhood; the kids called her “Croc-Odile” and “gimp.” When she’s seventeen, a woman cuts out Belle’s tongue, rendering her mute.
As Odile searches NYC for her sister, we meet several other disabled children, such as Pigeon, the girl at Mrs. Bloodworth’s who is missing an arm and the unnamed boy working in the opium den whose mother cut off his nose.
Sylvan Threadgill, the night soiler who finds the abandoned baby in the privy, is biracial, with “the skin of a Gypsy, the hair of a Negro, the build of a German, the nose of a Jew.” Mrs. Izzo, in whose care he leaves the baby, has skin “the color of burnished gold.”
In what is perhaps the biggest reveal in The Church of Marvels, Alphie was born Alphonse Booth Jr. She was kicked out of her house at the age of 14, when her father caught her kissing a boy named Sam. For a while she was a sex worker at the Widow’s Walk, which appears to be staffed exclusively by young gay men and trans women. (The blue star is a recurring symbol in the book, used to denote gay- and trans-friendly establishments.) When Alphie marries Anthony, she tries to “pass” as a “real” woman, but Anthony’s mother the Signora finds her out and has her committed to an asylum, which is home (prison) to both “troublesome” women as well as women with legitimate mental disorders.
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